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  • Aviation’s climate challenge is off the radar in Paris

    As the crowds admire all the new aircraft and high-tech displays at Paris Bourget this week, it's important to remember that the aviation sector faces a serious and growing challenge if it is to adequately rise to the climate change challenge.

    International aviation emissions have grown 90 per cent since 1990, and are expected to grow by up to 270 per cent by 2050. CO2 and greenhouse gases (GHGs) from aviation account for some five per cent of the overall climate problem – its CO2 emissions alone are on a par with Germany’s.

    These figures are hardly surprising; international aviation fuel is tax exempt, air tickets are hardly taxed, there are no emission reduction targets for the sector under current international climate agreements, and no fuel efficiency standards for aircraft. Also unsurprising is the fact that developed countries are the main source of emissions. US domestic and international emissions make up 29 per cent of all aviation emissions. Together, the EU and North American markets account for half of total global aviation emissions. Action from these two markets to lead in reducing emissions is essential.

    Regulating emissions from this sector remains, however, highly controversial. The EU made a start in 2012 by including international aviation emissions in its emissions trading system (ETS). But before the year was out industry and foreign pressure, led by the US, forced a temporary climb-down and the system now only covers flights between EU airports, roughly 27 per cent of EU aviation emissions.

    The issue was kicked to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to resolve, which says it is doing so by developing a global offsetting scheme to be agreed in 2016 and come into force in 2020 – though only for emissions growth above 2020 levels. However, public information on progress or otherwise is deliberately scarce.

    What has a proven record of reducing transport emissions is an efficiency standard. Europe’s CO2 standards for cars are now making significant strides to reduce emissions from new vehicles (about a four per cent per annum improvement), yet a similar measure does not exist for aircraft.

    A group of ICAO states dominated by North America and Europe, together with an army of industry experts and a handful of participants from civil society, has been working for five years now to develop one. The fuel efficiency of new commercial jet aircraft was improving on average three per cent every year but this has slowed to about one per cent per annum since 2010. The purpose of the work is ostensibly to see future efficiency improvements in new aircraft exceed this historical trend.

    Unfortunately the prospects don’t look good. The technology bar for a standard beginning in 2020 has been set at 2016 levels – this for aircraft to begin flying in about 2023. New variants of existing aircraft types – say the A320neo, 737MAX and 777X – may not be regulated at all. By 2030 only five per cent of the global fleet flying would be regulated. And the standard would be a static flat line – to regulate a dynamic parameter; new aircraft fuel efficiency has demonstrably shown average annual improvements for the past 60 years.

    Sure, efficiency gains are slowing down and improvements are becoming harder to achieve but even ICAO’s own fuel burn experts determined that significant gains can be had from moderate regulatory pressure. And with aviation emissions continuing to grow strongly, the case for a robust aircraft CO2 standard has never been stronger.

    With new aircraft designs requiring enormous investments and a long lead-in time, and with aircraft themselves having a lifespan of 25-30 years, the failure to put in place a standard that has a real environmental effect on reducing emissions beyond business-as-usual will risk locking in decades of wasteful and environmentally dangerous fossil fuel consumption.

    Manufacturers claim they are already doing the maximum and that the enormous upfront investment costs prevent technology forcing – but the technology-following ICAO standard as currently envisaged won’t even regulate production for many years to come, let alone promote the not insignificant efficiency improvements that ICAO’s own experts have identified as achievable.

    Two weeks ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that GHGs from aircraft threaten the public health and welfare. Hardly ‘news’, as the EPA already found that GHGs from power plants are harmful and need to be regulated, but the finding should lead to the US acting to close one of its most glaring climate gaps: the failure to control the rapid growth of aviation emissions from the country that started it all.

    The EPA finding, along with the EU’s commitment to decarbonise its transport sector, should now drive the ICAO process. The two authorities, which previously fell out over the inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS, should see cooperation as the essential path towards reducing emissions from the sector.

    By resetting their thinking and committing to genuine ambition at ICAO, we could see a global standard that would actually reduce emissions from aviation. Such a standard would cover both new types and in-production aircraft (existing designs) and would deliver on the ICAO-agreed commitment to emissions reductions beyond business as usual, which was the original objective.

    The EPA finding expresses a preference for adopting whatever standard may be agreed by ICAO. However, it recognises the flaws in the current draft proposals, particularly the exclusion of in-production aircraft. The EPA therefore left open the possibility of using the discretion granted to it under the Clean Air Act to adopt standards more stringent than those crafted by ICAO. So while Plan A is an effective ICAO standard, the EU and US should make it clear that, if ICAO fails, they are prepared to work together on a more stringent standard.

    Representing over half of the global aviation market, it is time for transatlantic cooperation to act as a driver for increased aviation climate ambition. This message has been sadly lacking from executives at Le Bourget this week.